Fifteen years ago few Britons had seen a telefacsimile machine. Now the fax is as familiar as roast potatoes, yet its infiltration into our daily lives has been so gradual that it has never been surrounded by the hype of colour television or the Internet.

Similarly, the great changes in fax technology have gone almost unremarked. Perhaps the biggest was the arrival of the fax/answerphone, which enabled people to run offices from home without needing an extra telephone line. But the machines were slow. If you wanted to send a document from your computer, you had to print it out, then feed it into the fax. Paper jams and other gremlins often made it a frustrating business.

The next step cured many of these problems, and saved you the expense of buying a fax machine at all. By installing a modem and special software into your personal computer, you can send faxes at the press of a button. When you receive a fax, you can either look at it on screen or print it out - this gives you a proper paper copy at a time when most fax machines still generate unpleasant coated paper.

The built-in faxes have disadvantages, however. The most serious is that you can send only documents your computer has generated, unless you have a separate scanner to feed them in. Fortunately, scanners - which can "read" typescript and rewrite it in a language computers can understand - are also improving fast.

A range of sophisticated machines and software is available. Which works best for you depends on what you use it for, how much space you have, and whether you prefer to work with physical or electronic paper.

Many people will be surprised to find they have fax software in their PCs. That is because Windows 95 includes a faxing program. It is fine for sending the occasional document, but lacks bells and whistles and scanning software that can read an incoming fax and turn it into an ordinary computer file.

If you need more features, a mass of specialist fax software is available. Delrina's WinFax PRO 7, the Windows 95 version of the bestselling fax package, supports e-mail - useful, since e-mail is already replacing the fax for many sorts of electronic communication. Winfax's paging system can also notify your pager that a particular fax has arrived, and redirect it. You can get on a train in London, your pager bleeps, and you know that a fax you have been waiting for has arrived at your home and been redirected to your Edinburgh hotel.

WinFax PRO has a "fax on demand" option. You can store marketing information, press releases or price lists on your computer; customers can then dial in and choose which document they want to have faxed to them.

Creative Labs uses a combination of software and an internal card that slots into your computer's mother board. The PhoneBlaster card combines a fast (28.8bps) modem with a SoundBlaster chipset. It can send faxes, act as an answering machine and provide a 1,000 mailbox voice-mail facility. Just how many virtual departments do you want the virtual corporation you run from the kitchen to have? Dataflex and Electronic Frontier also offer Windows 95 "plug and play" fax/voice/data modem cards, although these run at a slower 14.4bps.

Despite the advances of fax software, the stand-alone fax is not dead. Companies such as Brother, Xerox and Hewlett Packard have been hitting back with the "multifunction unit", a combined fax machine/printer/scanner.

Hewlett Packard's recently launched OfficeJet LX is aimed at people who want to work from home but who have only one telephone line. It has three modes according to the priority you want to give to the phone or fax.

The new Toshiba TF461 is an all-singing, all-dancing multifunction unit, with both colour and mono printing. Looking at the specifications it is hard to know whether it is a printer with fax, copier and scanning capabilities built in, or whether it is a fax machine that doubles as a colour printer. Optional software is needed to convert the copier function into a scanner. The TF461 can be linked to your PC, letting you send and receive faxes direct from screen. Add in seven pre-set reduction ratios on the copier, the ability to store up to 34 A4 pages of incoming faxes if the machine runs out of paper, a broadcast facility that allows you to transmit documents to up to 20 locations at one time, and a range of scalable fonts, and you have what is definitely a second-generation multifunction unit.

But beware of the limitations of multifunction units. The modems are slow (9.6bps in the Hewlett Packard) and if the unit breaks down you loose three pieces of office equipment at once.

WinFax PRO 7, pounds 99, Delrina 0181 207 3163; PhoneBlaster 28.8 fax/voice/data modem card, pounds 249, CreativeLabs, 01734 344322; Complete Office Communicator, 14.4 fax/voice/data modem card, pounds 125, Electronic Frontier, 01734 810600; PC Comms Office, 14.4 fax/voice/data modem card, pounds 129, Dataflex, 0181 543 6417; Canon B360 fax machine, pounds 1,295; Hewlett Packard OfficeJet LX, 9.6 fax/scanner/printer, pounds 469; Xerox 3006, 14.4 fax/scanner/printer, pounds 881; Toshiba TF461, pounds 649 (pounds 749 with optional scanning and fax software), 01932 825052. Prices do not include VAT.